For the pre-Columbian civilizations of Central and South America, cacao, the seeds of the cacao pod growing on the Theobroma Cacao tree is more than just the input used to make what is commonly known as chocolate. Cacao’s central and southern American origin makes the plant particularly significant to the peoples who established civilizations there, specifically the ancient Mayan, Aztec, and Olmec peoples. The process of turning these cacao seeds into what is known as chocolate is an intricate process developed by these Mesoamerican peoples requiring them to grind the cacao seeds and create a paste called chocolate liquor. For the ancient Mesoamerican peoples, cacao was not just a food, but much more than that. Cacao held a spiritual, cultural, and religious significance. In many ways, cacao shaped the social and spiritual customs of Mesoamerican peoples in pre-Columbian civilizations. All parts of the Theobroma tree, including the cacao pods and seeds, have a sacred place in the religious beliefs of these peoples, having caused them to create specific societal customs and traditions. The ancient Mayan civilizations are commonly cited for their use of cacao in religious ceremonies like marriage along with uses in social gatherings. In fact, Mayan’s believed that cacao was the food of the gods. Three main ways in which cacao demonstrated its spiritual importance was in marriage ceremonies, religious offerings, and death rituals. The way in which cacao has been discovered to be used in these ways illustrates the significance of this precious Mesoamerican food.
Cacao was discovered to have religious and spiritual significance through discoveries of ancient archeological finds and through literature like the Dresden Codex and Madrid Codex. These early Mayan pieces of literature describe the important religious rituals and deities that the Mayan people preform and celebrate. In the codex, many gods are depicted either eating or holding cacao beans, and are referenced as the food of the gods. A depiction of gods spilling blood over cacao pods can be seen in the Madrid Codex, illustrated in Figure 1 (Coe, et. al. 79). There has always been a strong connection between cacao and religious beliefs for ancient Mesoamericans.
Cacao played an important part in religious beliefs for ancient Mayan people. The ancient peoples had the belief that the cacao seed was the food of the gods, many times having depictions of cacao and gods on religious vessels. The Maize God, or “iximte” as it was known to the ancient Mayans is depicted as a cacao tree. Cacao pods are protruding from the figure’s body as it points at a vessel. This vessel would have been used to transfer and carry chocolate liquor or other sacred foods. This type of depiction is quite important when trying to understand the role cacao played in Mayan religious practice. This type of illustration shows that there was a clear link between the gods and cacao, so much so that they are drawn interweaved with each other. Cacao was simply a gift from the gods that was a part of their religious belief systems.
Cacao was more than just depicted in hieroglyphs and images by ancient Mesoamericans. It was also a part of their daily religious and societal practices. An important way in which cacao was implemented into their customs was through marriage ceremonies. At these ceremonies, a frothy cacao based drink called “kakaw” would be served amongst the individuals attending these events. This was a societal ritual that was practiced at weddings specifically royal weddings. This important ceremony of serving kakaw usually was served in a special vase which shows depictions of cacao and people serving kakaw drinks.This type of vase was used particularly to serve nobles and royalty and was a part of Mayan culture. Other ceremonies that kakaw would be served at besides weddings include, war victories or a ruler coming into a throne, and even rites of sacrifice. (Carassco 105). In Figure 3 we can see that at these ceremonies, a vessel was used to carry cacao. These vessels were seen at these types of sociocultural events. Cacao was essential at all of these types of sociocultural events as they had religious significance and was a food of the gods as discussed earlier.
Another important way in which cacao was important in the religious and spiritual lives of ancient Mayans and Mesoamericans can be seen during death. In all cultures death is an essential part of belief systems. Death is an important part of the ancient stories of the Maize God. Based on the legends the death and rebirth of the Maize God gave way to the germination of the earth, proving the land with trees and seeds, including cacao (McNeil. 178).
Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 2014.
Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.
His feet stomped on the ground to the rhythm of the beating drums. Jewels of the great god Quetzalcoatl swung about his body, glinting in the sun as he swayed. His smile slowly slipped off his face as his eyes fell upon the obsidian knife meant to carve out his heart the very next day. The temple elders brought a gourd to his lips, and he obliged (Coe and Coe).
This sacrificial ritual took place annually in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. A slave, chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl, would perform a sacrificial dance on the eve of his sacrifice. If he did not dance joyously, the temple elders would prepare a potion of human blood washed off of sacrificial knives mixed with chocolate in order to make the slave forget about his impending sacrifice and continue to dance cheerfully (Coe and Coe).
From Mesoamerican archaeological records, chocolate is typically known for its economic role as currency or social restriction as a beverage exclusive to the upper class (Prufer and Hurst). So how did its association with human sacrifices originate? In tracing back through Mesoamerican traditions incorporating cacao and blood, it can be theorized that such rituals evolved from beliefs derived from the Olmecs thousands of years before.
During the Aztec slave’s sacrifice, his heart would be extracted and presented to the gods. Chocolate was likely used in the sacrificial ritual due to cacao pods’ symbolism of the human heart torn out in sacrifice (Coe and Coe). Evidence of this is recorded in the Song to Otontecuhtli, in which the verse cuauhinochitla, cacahuatla associates a cacao pod with the heart of a sacrificial victim (Mazariegos). Although this symbolism may be due to the vague similarities between the shapes of human hearts and cacao pods, historian Eric Thompson argues that the association is more likely because “both were the repositories of precious liquids—blood and chocolate” (qtd. in Coe and Coe 85).
This explanation concurs with the Aztecs’ association of cacao as a symbol of the heart and blood. Their priests, poets, and philosophers used yollotl, eztli, or “heart, blood,” as a figure of speech referring to chocolate. Although Spanish informants observing the Aztecs believed the phrase to represent how precious cacao was (Coe and Coe), it is likely that the metaphor had more literal symbolism.
The Codex Féjévary-Mayer
The Codex Féjévary-Mayer, an Aztec manuscript depicting the tonalpohualli, their 260-day calendar (“Fejérváry-Mayer Codex”), serves as further archaeological evidence of the association between cacao and blood. The painting above portrays a god surrounded by four T-shaped trees–the 4 World Trees of cardinal directions (Martin).
Taking a closer look, the tree pointing downwards may seem to have ritually stained knives hanging off of it. In actuality, this depicts a cacao tree (Martin). The cacao tree represents the Tree of the South, which is associated with the Land of the Dead, the color red, and blood (Coe and Coe). This codex provides an artistic record of cacao’s association with both death and blood.
The association between cacao and blood was not exclusive to the Aztecs–rather, it was universal throughout Mesoamerica. For example, the Madrid Codex illustrates four Mayan gods piercing their earlobes and showering cacao pods with their own blood. This is evidence for how the Mayans, who existed over 3000 years before the Aztecs, also equated liquid chocolate with blood, although there is no record that the Mayans used cacao in human sacrificial rituals. Because the symbolism of cacao as blood is so strong, surviving through thousands of years and multiple civilizations, it presumably originated from the robust beliefs of an ancestral culture (Seawright).
The most likely origin of the association between cacao and blood may be traced to the Olmecs. The Olmec civilization, which thrived from 1500 BCE – 400 BCE, is thought to be a possible ancestor of the Mayans (Martin). They were one of the first powerful civilizations to use chocolate, as evidenced by both chemical and linguistic analysis. With their immense prominence, the Olmec were able to spread the use of chocolate to emerging cultures around Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe).
Like the Mayans and Aztecs, the Olmecs placed great ritual significance on chocolate. Although we have no decipherable written record, cacao has been found amongst burial remains of sacrificial victims (Powis), suggesting that the Olmecs associated cacao with death and sacrifice. It is likely that this association, as well as other cultural, religious, and social practices, were spread alongside the diffusion of chocolate itself (Seawright).
Thus, it is reasonable to attribute the origins of the use of chocolate in human sacrifices to the spread of Olmec culture. As the Olmecs’ beliefs spread alongside the use of chocolate, cacao’s association with sacrifice and death remained strong. As this association was adopted by different civilizations, like the Mayans and the Aztecs, it was modified to fit their own cultural practices. Consequently, the Aztecs integrated chocolate into their rituals of human sacrifice.
Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate, London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 05 Feb 2020, Harvard University, Lecture.
Mazariegos, Oswaldo Chinchilla. “Human Sacrifice And Divine Nourishment In Mesoamerica: The Iconography Of Cacao On The Pacific Coast Of Guatemala.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 27, no. 2, 2016, pp. 361–375., doi:10.1017/s0956536116000201.
Powis, T. G., et al. “Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, Sept. 2011, pp. 8595–8600., doi:10.1073/pnas.1100620108.
Prufer, K. M., and W. J. Hurst. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” Ethnohistory, vol. 54, no. 2, Jan. 2007, pp. 273–301., doi:10.1215/00141801-2006-063.
Seawright, Caroline. “ARC2AZT Essay: Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where Did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate?” N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Chocolate: the ultimate breakup food. Who hasn’t had chocolate prescribed post-heartbreak by some well-meaning friend? Modern popular media have especially promoted this trope as an essential part of the female experience, depicting devastated, gluttonous woman shoveling chocolate down their crying mouths. For example, take this iconic scene from the 2001 hit Legally Blonde when the protagonist, Elle Woods, uses chocolate to try and numb her post-breakup pain:
But from where does this trope stem from? Did someone just see a devastated, heartbroken woman and decide that the best course of action was to give her a plastic container full of sugar bombs to heal her pain? To start and investigate this question we can look before the iconic chocolate box, before even the concept of a chocolate box itself, and find that Aztec and Mayan beliefs about the spiritual and healing nature of cacao provides the foundation for modern beliefs on the properties of chocolate.
Foundations in Mayan and Aztec Beliefs
Examining ancient Maya artwork reveals that the Mayans deeply associated cacao with the gods, thus imbuing the plant with a spiritual value. The Dresden Codex—one of the four surviving Mayan manuscripts—contains many images depicting gods interacting with and even consuming cacao, like in this image, captioned “cacao is his food.”
Similarly, in the Madrid Codex, gods are even depicted showering their blood over cacao pods in a powerful demonstration of their close relationship with cacao (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Furthermore, according to David Carrasco, this relationship between the gods and cacao emerges in Mayan religion, as well. According to Carrasco, the Mayans believed that trees, such as the cacao tree, served as “metastructures of the heavens,” through which the roots connected gods to the underworld, the trunk placed them in the world, and the branches extended up to the heavens (Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica). Therefore, the Mayan association of cacao to the gods demonstrates their belief of cacao being spiritual.
Ancient Aztec religion also placed cacao on a spiritual level. It is depicted on a ritual book called the Codex Féjérváry-Mayer where it is part of a cosmic diagram. It also took prominence in metaphors used by Aztec religious figures, in which they referred to chocolate as “heart, blood.” (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Thus, the prominence of cacao in Aztec rituals highlights their association of cacao with spirituality.
Furthermore, the Aztec and Mayan belief in the spirituality of cacao extended past just the metaphysical plane, and into everyday life. They believed in the ability of cacao to nourish not only the bodies, but also the spirits of their people.
The Maya believed that cacao drinks contained “powerful physiological effects,” causing “virility, strength, and the fortitude to undertake physically demanding feats, such as marching to war” as depicted in this image of a warrior alongside a cacao tree laden with cacao pods (Leissle, Cocoa).
They also believed that the health boosting properties of cacao extended into fertility—thus, as evidenced in this image of a marriage ceremony, cacao played an important role in marriage rites, not only as currency in the bride’s dowry, but also to promote fertility.
The Aztecs similarly believed in the beneficial effects of cacao on the body. Aztec society highly condemned drunkenness—a sin they deemed punishable by death. Therefore, instead of their alcoholic drink, octli, they revered cacao beverages as a healthier and more virtuous alternative (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). These beliefs that chocolate could nourish and revitalize the body demonstrates the translation of the spiritual nature of cacao into tangible benefits in the human body.
Therefore, by looking into Mayan and Aztec attitudes and associations with cacao, we can see that these ancient civilizations formed the foundation of belief around the healing and spiritual properties of cacao that still exist today.
Tracking the Colonization of Indigenous Beliefs
But how did these ancient ideas stand the test of time to exist in today’s society? Examining interactions between colonizers and the Mayans illuminates the way these ancient beliefs migrated through time and space.
When colonizers came from Europe to mesoamerica in the early sixteenth century they encountered not only the Mayan people, but also their foods and beliefs. Among these foods were cacao, which was highly prevalent in Mayan society at the time as both a currency and a revered form of food. Through interactions with the Mayans, the Spanish colonizers adopted beliefs around the spiritually and physically healing properties of cacao. As cacao distribution spread as part of triangular trade, which brought goods and slaves between continents across the Atlantic, as shown on the diagram below, this belief spread through European society. In the early seventeenth century an ailing Alphonse de Richelieu brought chocolate to France for the first time in the hopes that it would help his problems with his spleen.
We can continue to track the belief of the healing and spiritual nature of chocolate a few centuries later by looking at the U.S army’s use of chocolate rations in the second world war. The U.S. developed a sustenance they called the “D-ration bar” to maintain the energy and health of their troops. The D-ration bar contained “a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour” and was used, alongside other candy, to keep up the morale and overall nutrition of the troops (Butler, D-Day Rations). Thus, this application of chocolate to keep allied warriors going demonstrates the foundation of Aztec and Mayan beliefs around chocolate to influence the use of chocolate in modern civilization to boost nutrition and aid warriors.
Remembering Roots: Historical Significance
It’s easy to look at chocolate and only see the candy. However, cacao has a long history of colonization, abuse, and enslavement—much of which still exists today. It’s important to remember the history of cacao to remember that our culture does not exist in its own vacuum, but has been influenced by those who lived before us. Part of this reflection is recognizing that so much of what we have has been colonized from other countries and cultures and assimilated until they wear only the label of “today.” While some may just see a heartbroken girl eating chocolate to heal herself, remembering the Mesoamerican foundation of beliefs on which our associations stand can allow us to see more than just a trope. We can see the connection between us and cultures from different parts of the world and different eras in history, helping us remember that our experiences are inextricably linked to those around us.
In today’s society, chocolate is a well known commodity that many people associate with sweetness and romance. A key ingredient in the making of chocolate is cacao. When people think about chocolate, they think of a sweet treat with European origins from places such as Switzerland. However, many people are often unaware that cacao was believed to be discovered in early Mesoamerican civilizations. These civilizations also had quite a different view of cacao and chocolate than the modern view. They viewed these items as luxury goods given to them by the gods and used them for more than simply eating. Cacao and chocolate were used in religious rituals, marriage rituals, and even used to cure illness. The Mayans viewed chocolate so fondly that they would have a yearly festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.
Cacao can be traced all the way back to the Mesoamerican civilizations. According to Magnus PharaoHansen, cacao was seen as luxury crop during this time period and it provided theobromine for the nervous system after a labor process of cultivation and processing. This evidence allows us to understand that Mesoamerica was becoming a civilization, moving past the stages of just necessities and creating class division and hierarchy. The image to the right shows vessels with residue of theobromine, which is an ingredient in cacao. This shows us that chocolate was becoming a big attraction in civilizations such as the Olmecs. Other civilizations such as Mayans and Aztecs have records that show a strong presence of cacao and chocolate.Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and ParisCodex (shown on the right) were in hieroglyphics and have cacao featured throughout, often being consumed by gods in ritual activities. Evidently, cacao was viewed by the Mesoamerican people as more than just a food item, but rather a sacred item given to them by the gods. According to historian Marcy Norton, cacao was viewed in a religious setting as essential to one’s physical, social, and spiritual well- being. During this time as well, many marriage customs involved the presence of cacao. The Mayan marriage rituals had the husband serve chocolate to the father of the girl he wanted to marry and discuss the marriage. Cacao was also used in customs involved death. The rites of death referred to cacao that was dyed red and helped ease the soul’s journey to the underworld. Cacao was used in beverages, as well, during the time of the Mayans. Chocolate beverages were viewed as sacred drinks with the foam being the most important part of the beverage. The beverages were able to boost energy for people due to the caffeine in the chocolate. Usually, it was men of royalty and elite status who consumed chocolate through beverages, while women and children were not allowed to drink the cacao. This is because they viewed it as an intoxicating food. Eventually, cacao and chocolate were being used for medicinal purposes. In the Mayan civilization, cacao was used for digestion and as an anti- inflammatory. In the Aztec civilization, cacao was used to cure infections and illnesses. As Teresa L. Dillinger states, “Childhood diarrhea was treated with a prescription that used five cacao beans. These were ground and blended with the root of tlayapoloni xiuitl (unknown plant) and then drunk. To relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with tlacoxochitl.” (Dillinger et al, 2060S) While the uses for chocolate expanded far beyond social use and pleasure, cacao still had an effect on the social landscape of the Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans had words such as “chokola’j”, whichis translated to “to drink chocolate together”. Cacao had quite a special effect on people and played an important role in society and still does to this day.
Clearly, there were many customs and beliefs that the Pre Columbian civilizations had involving chocolate and cacao. The influence chocolate was able to have on these civilizations was immense and impacted their everyday lives. Many aspects of life were changed socially, religiously, and physically. Cacao and chocolate were able to change social interactions and physical treatments of people. People in the Mesoamerican civilizations used chocolate during many marriage, death, and religious rituals. As shown in lecture, foods and beverages such as the one shown on the right, still use the influence of early civilizations in order to sell products. The description of this beverage states, “Recommended served warm (106°), this delicious and relaxing beverage was blended to revive the delicacies and keen insights of the ancient Aztec tribes of Central America. Passed from generation to generation, our take on this blessed drink brings you the sensational benefits of anti-oxidant rich cacao and the powerful digestion aid blend of spices to create a tasty healthful experience.” With this description, we can clearly see how the Mayans and Aztecs views on chocolate still influence the modern global chocolate market. Due to the significance of cacao in the Mesoamerican society, chocolate has played a major role in the lives of many people and continues to have a major influence all over the world.
Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past.” Nawatl Scholar, 1 Jan. 1970, nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8, 2000, doi:10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s.
The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.
Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.
While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.
This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.
Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.
We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).
See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).
Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.
This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.
Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed. From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)
I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.
A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.
Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.
When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.
“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.
For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.
Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.
Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.
Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.
Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.
Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)
Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”
See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).
As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.
For most of us consumers, it is easy to have a sense of detachment from the origins of the product which we consume, this statement is most applicable in the case of chocolate. It is arguable that the vast majority of chocolate consumers do not know the etymology of chocolate nor do they know it as a Cacao fruit first before its many transformation into chocolate. The word chocolate is said to have come from the Mayan word xocolatl. We have come to be introduced into the world of chocolate thanks to the many works of the meticulous archaeologists who have gone back in time to examine artifacts from regions in Mesoamerica that has helped to pinpoint the introduction of Chocolate into history, the culture, uses and beliefs of this wonderful beverage that came to be known as “food of the gods” (Presilla 5). The more delicate discoveries of chocolate including pre-Columbian recipes, uses and beliefs stems out of the Mayan civilization. In Mayan culture chocolate was a highly revered beverage both to the living and the dead and in particular to the Mayan elite. It was of utmost importance in Mayan ritual sacrifices and the use of cacao was also prevalent in Mayan dishes. Today, is a treat that can be afforded by both the rich and the poor, this being the case it is so easy to forget that at one point and especially in Mayan culture chocolate was a treat reserved only for the wealthy and the gods. The Mayan use of chocolate in various ceremonies including in sacred ritual sacrifices, marriage ceremonies, funerals and such makes an astounding case that the association of chocolate as “ the food of the gods” had its influences from the Mayan civilization.
It may be argued that cacao made its first appearance in the Olmec civilization but the Mayans came to domesticate this fruit and provide the vast artifacts that gave room to the study and understanding of chocolate. The area known today as Mesoamerica which spans “between central Mexico and Western Honduras, including all of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador” (Presilla 8); Is said to be the birth place of the cacao and for the most part, this region has been placed as the sites of Mayan settlement.
The first discovery of Cacao in Mayan culture came from the Dresden codex. This historical artifact is “a type of folding screen book that was discovered as part of Mayan writing collections that preceded the Spanish conquest” (Coe 41). From the scenes in which cacao is depicted in this sacred text, it can be deduced that the Mayans saw cacao as a sacred. Cacao also made another appearance in a “far less artistic Madrid codex and in this text, a young god squats while grasping limbs from a cacao tree. We also see a depiction of gods scattering blood over cacao bloods” (Coe 42). This last scene was the first time the association between human blood and chocolate was made one that would come to mean so much later as we discover about the use of chocolate and blood in sacred sacrifices.
As it has become apparent, the Mayans highly prized cacao, so much so that it was depicted quite often in the presence of gods. For people who held such reverence for this fruit, how so did they consume it?
We know from “inscriptions deciphered from classic period drinking vessels and funerary offerings” (Presilla 12), that cacao was first consumed as a fruit beverage made from the fruit pulp. Mayan glyphs for “tree fresh cacao, was discovered from the Primary Standard Sequence of the Buena vista vase, from Buena vista del Cayo in Belize” (Presilla 12).
The most instrumental discovery for archaeologists in understanding the Mayan use of cacao and chocolate came from the discovery of the tombs at Rio Azul. It proved to be a site of countless evidence of the chocolate drinking culture of the Mayans. On one particular person, that of a “middle aged ruler, archaeologists discovered in his tomb an astounding 14 pottery vessels including six cylindrical vases and on some of the vases evidence that they had contained dark liquid was very apparent” (Coe 46). In this particular tomb, evidence of different recipes of chocolate was also found; a drinking vessel containing for “witik cacao and kox cacao” (Coe 46). In these wonderful discoveries, it is well seen that the Mayans even sent of their dead equipped with chocolate beverages to ensure a feast in the afterlife. The Mayans were also credited for popularizing the frothed chocolate beverage which we still enjoy today. In a vase that was discovered and attributed to be made in the “Nakbe area in the 8th century, of the images illustrated, a lady is seen pouring a chocolate drink from one vessel to another. A discovery that proved to be the first time a picture of a chocolate drink was being made and the introduction of the foaming method” (Coe 48).
To the Mayans, chocolate was a highly prized beverage, one that found its way into various aspects of Mayan culture including, marriage ceremonies, parties, rite to passage ceremonies, burial ceremonies and sacred ritual sacrifices. Although cacao may have first made its appearance in the Olmec civilization, it was not raised to its level of importance until the Mayans came into the picture. That is, the Mayans are responsible for introducing a level of finesse into the making of the beverage we come to know as chocolate today; The Mayans raised chocolate to its status as the “food of the gods”.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013(1996). The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames&Hudson.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural &Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.